There are easy ways to set up an urban spirits startup, and then there’s East London Liquor Company, an ambitious vodka, gin and whisky distillery established in 2014. Its site also hosts a bar and the company runs a small distribution business, too.
Founder Alex Wolpert brought years of experience in the bar industry to bear when setting up ELLC. His former employer, Barworks, became an investor in the distillery as well as a customer. For technical know-how, Wolpert called in distilling consultant Jamie Baxter.
Whisky production brings with it some challenges, requiring large qualities of the low-strength wort as a base rather than the high-strength neutral grain spirit used for gin. To produce, handle and distil this requires a lot more space and equipment than your typical gin distiller. Originally outsourced, wort production has since moved in-house and the distillery is expanding to fit a third whisky still.
Around the same time Sipsmith was battling the authorities to set up a gin distillery in London, William Chase was turning a potato farm in Herefordshire into a vodka distillery.
Chase, the man behind Tyrrells Crisps, was on a trip to the US in 2004 when he was inspired by farmers making spirits from potatoes to do something similar. Unlike his UK contemporaries, he planned to produce spirits from its base material rather than buy in neutral alcohol. Distilling like this meant installing a tall column still, rare in a scene dominated by the more stout pot stills used by most craft spirits distillers.
After that initial vodka came a selection of gins, more vodkas and long hours on the road selling. Bars slowly came onboard, supermarket contacts from the family’s crisp days helped with some listings, and the rest, as they say, is history.
For those not quite ready to own a still of their own, there are other ways to ride the wave of cool new craft spirits. Thames Distillers is what founder Charles Maxwell describes as a ‘facilitation service’, allowing prospective brand owners to dip their toes in the water. Maxwell helps with recipe development and requires commitments of no more than about 6,000 bottles, which don’t all need to be bottled at once.
The entry-level cost of this can be as low as £25,000, including development, production, bottles and labels. In some cases, a gin can be ready to go within three or four months, but it’s up to the company to take care of the branding and finding the right distribution.
A significant number of gin brands have come out of Thames Distillers – some that hide their contract-distiller origins and others that wear the fact on their sleeve, including Fords Gin.
Size isn’t everything, particularly when making exceptional spirits from a house in Highgate. That’s the model followed by Sacred Spirits Company since Ian Hart set out to make gin in 2008. By using vacuum distillation, which operates at low pressure, to produce his spirits evaporation can occur at a much lower temperature than traditional distillation. This means that Hart’s distilling equipment is significantly smaller than most, fitting inside a room in his house, with a vacuum pump located in a wendy house outside.
To produce his gin, each botanical is distilled separately, and the lower-temperature process allows Hart to extract flavours in a way that traditional stills can’t. These are blended to create the core Sacred Gin product, as well as an organic version, and a number of others, each focusing on a core botanical. Hart’s output also includes vodkas, aperitifs and vermouths.